Tawang gompa is the second largest monastery of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (the largest being in Lhasa). Attending morning prayers here was definitely one of the high points of our visit. The monastery is well endowed, with many of the buildings undergoing restoration or having recently been restored.
After visiting the Urgelling monastery we came back to the hotel, picked up The Victors and left immediately for Tawang gompa. As we entered the gate of the monastery, we saw a shop near the entrance where a young monk was buying a packet of biscuits. The boy-monk finished his transaction and ran away into the monastery. Much of what we saw of the life of novice monks reminded me of a school.
Our first stop was a little shrine inside the gompa where there were a couple of chhortens, with lamps burning in front of them. An old monk sat looking at us while I took photos. The family decided to light a lamp, and she seemed to light up the old man. When I took a photo of him, he asked me where we were from. I told him Mumbai. He said people from Mumbai believe, people from Kolkata do not. A random act by The Family has perhaps forever changed the way this man and his friends will view Mumbai.
We walked into the main prayer hall and found a prayer was in progress. This is a tremendously awe inspiring thing to hear and see. The chants fill up the cavernous space of the hall, and at times the various musical instruments join in: cymbals of various sizes, drums, and wind instruments. I diffidently asked one of the monks whether I could take photos, and he said as many as I wished. I walked around, sometimes between rows, and no one objected. If I go back, I will definitely try to record the prayers: it is a sound that I want to take apart and understand.
The most impressive looking instrument is the horn whose photo appears above. I’ve seen this instrument in many of the gompas and dzongs which we have visited. In each place I tried to take a photo of it, but I never could step back enough to capture of the sense of its size. In Tawang gompa I think I succeeded finally. The instrument is used sparingly in the ceremony. It must require tremendous power to blow this horn, so the person playing this technically challenging instrument is allowed time to recover. In this photo you can also see two other smaller horns, and the drums.
As far as I could make out, all the adult monks who do not specialize in the horns play cymbals and chant. Some of the teenagers played the drums. The youngest monks may chant, but do not seem to be required to in any clear hierarchical fashion. As far as I could see, the youngest boys were only required to be patient. They had enough freedom to talk to each other, or even be extremely curious about the photos I was taking.
Even so, at the end of the prayer the boys rush out boisterously, shouting as if a school recess has begun. They even play the same kind of mischievous games which I remember from my own school days. On the day when I watched, they converted the shoes of one of their mates into a football and kept kicking it around the courtyard.
The monastery is not as charming as the Urgelling gompa, but it is more lively. The novice monks here seem to be under less strict control than in most places we have seen in Bhutan. The Dalai Lama’s public personality is very open. I wonder whether it is that openness which is influencing the course of things here and in other Gelugpa monasteries.